No one does colorful, playful whimsy like Jonpaul does.
We all like to tell each other to not take life too seriously, but realistically, it can be a tough mantra to follow amidst all of our stresses in daily life. Lucky for us, though — some welcomed reprieve can be found in the colorfully playful work of Los Angeles-based photographer and creative director, Jonpaul Douglass.
According to Douglass himself, he is obsessed with his childhood, and it comes as no surprise that a boy, who grew up neighboring a place called “Dinosaur World” in Florida, became a man who induces a chuckle out of everyone with a single image. From pugs to pizza and from bouncy balls to teal-colored cowboys, Douglass’s photos are a whimsical reverie of color and outlandishness, and will surely transport anyone back in time to their own years of juvenility.
We caught up with Douglass to hear all about his creative journey, his fondness for color and pizza, and everything in between.
How did you develop an interest in photography and visual arts?
I was still in college at the time. I was the type of person who switched my major around a lot because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, which I think is very common especially for people who are more artistic and creative. I think the idea that you can actually do what you love for a living has always seemed too good to be true, which I’ve learned is something that you can totally do.
I never thought I’d be doing photography for a living, but I can just go out, create things, and people will give me money to do it to where I’m able to make enough of it to get by. I had worked as a call person at an insurance company before and had all of these conversations with people about auto accidents. It was just a really bummer job, but I still had the Internet so I taught myself all of the ins and outs of the technicalities of photography while I was working at this insurance company. I finally started to mess around with strobes and learned how to properly light a subject. I worked for about a year and had a portfolio of all this stuff. I figured things out pretty quickly so I immediately got a rep and started shooting in advertising all within a year of just starting out in photography.
I’ve been on this weird journey ever since then, because I was doing these jobs for the same clients that I shoot for now, which is funny. I had to learn what my artistic voice was while doing commercial work, and I think that’s what makes my work this funny thing. I’ve always adjusted to what the trends are in advertising, and slowly — but surely — found a voice that’s unique and sometimes hard to describe, even for me. Even though I can feel it and see it a lot of the time, I’m always trying to edit it, work at it, and shape it. I’ve landed in a really cool spot and I don’t know a lot of people who are in my same position, so I feel very fortunate.
I see that you’re from Florida - I am too! Do you think growing up there and/or in LA has an influence on you and your work?
Oh yeah, I am obsessed with my childhood. I grew up in a small town right outside of Tampa called Plant City, which is right between Orlando and Tampa. You’ll pass this place called Dinosaur World with these huge dinosaurs in the middle of this country town. I grew up right next to that and worked at the gas station there because my grandparents owned it. It was my high school job.
It’s also a great life in L.A., and I’m constantly concentrating on that too, to make sure that life is in order and everything is well. I think that’s especially important when you work for yourself, because it can become very unhealthy if you’re a workaholic, which is something that I have gone through. You need to keep your health in check so that you can think of all these ideas!
A majority of your photos are bright, colorful, and full of personality yet simple at the same time. What’s the inspiration and theme behind your photos and overall aesthetic?
I would say that it’s just different things at different times. Currently, I’m trying to push away from things that feel normal in any way. Something needs to have a special quality about it that’s almost magical and makes you wonder. It doesn’t necessarily have to be from the lighting or in the composition, but it can be how the lensing is worked, the depth within the photograph, or maybe even the colors.
It’s been hard to describe what I’ve been interested in lately but no matter what it is, it’s always beautiful to me if there’s a simplicity to it. I try to simplify most of my pictures and subjects. Even when I try to complicate them, I end up stripping it back. It’s sort of this ethereal type of quality and it can be in any aspect of it - it feels strange in a certain type of way because of “this,” and I might not always be able to put a finger on what “that” is.
Speaking of colors, do you have one that you’re drawn to more than the others in your creative process?
I go through phases. I’ll really be feeling yellow or green one day, or even orange. I wouldn’t say that I like orange but I just went through an orange period. It always changes. I typically like a softer palette, but I’m not afraid of bold colors either if it works. You know, if it becomes too “electric highlighter” and then I get scared. I just like color in general.
Based on all of the random objects that are the focal points in your photography, it seems like you’re a fun guy! Can you walk me through the process of how you come up with all of your quirky ideas?
I stay really busy. Being a freelance photographer, creative person, or whatever it is, you’re always evolving your lifestyle and seeing what works. I like to stay busy because I know that I’ll need to force myself to come up with creative ideas just from sitting around, but it’s much easier if I’m off doing something else and the idea dawns on me. It’s the same thing if you go on Reddit and read about shower ideas. There’s a reason why you come up with so many ideas in the shower, and it’s because you’re sort of in this meditative state of doing something where you’re trying not to think and then poof, it just happens.
I just started meditating this year and it’s the first thing that I do when I wake up every morning. I clear my head first and then move into a project so I’m more focused, productive, and happier doing it. I do a lot of activities though! I’ve always loved skateboarding and rock climbing. My wife is also the pug princess of L.A. so we run the pug meetups and I’m always around all of these pugs. It’s ridiculous how close we are to our pug.
So you’re both a photographer and a creative director - how do the two differentiate, and do you come across any obstacles working as both or do they influence each other more?
I don’t think I would have even known what a creative director was in the beginning. It’s something that I’ve learned from being a photographer and working with a lot of art directors, advertising agencies, and just so many people at this point.
I’ve realized that I can be the creative director on a project or I can direct a commercial, and I can be all of this stuff. You’re around it and see all of these other people doing it and soon realize that it’s just a “taste” thing, and I trust and like my own taste. I think you learn a craft first and it just falls into place if you’re around that world.
Coming from [the standpoint of] being both a photographer and a creative director, photography is really helpful, because the stuff that I’m directing involves cameras, movement, lighting, etc. It spills over a lot, so if you’re familiar with one, then you’re usually familiar with the other as well. It’s great.
I love the photo series that you did titled “pizza in the wild.” What was the story behind that and how did you choose each setting?
That’s actually how most people know me is from that pizza project. It got really popular around 2013 in terms of what I’m used to. It was very fun and now I’m sort of like “the pizza guy” a lot of the time, which is totally cool.
I’m glad I ended up moving to L.A because I fell in love with it, but I also was not very busy and had a lot of free time when I first moved. There is nothing better for a person like myself than having a lot of free time because I love to create things and make personal projects. Most of the time, I’m being creative for everyone else and not for myself. At that particular time, I was able to make something just for me and explore L.A. with a reason to do it.
The pictures were easy to make because I could throw a pizza anywhere, and it would just look interesting. I spent a lot of time finding spots and scouting out little areas. I would find places while I was out driving, and told myself that I would come back at 4pm because the light was right and just throw a pizza right on there.
Was it the same pizza?
It depends because I would pick up a fresh one every time I would go, but I would only shoot it for a couple of hours max because it started to get really gross and dried out. You know, just like food does. They were real pizzas from Little Caesars for five dollars. I lived in Echo Park at the time, and would run down there to have them give me an uncut pizza. I would either put it in a bag and skateboard around the neighborhood with it or throw it in my car and drive around town to find spots to plant it.
You’ve worked with many big brands like Google, Facebook, Instagram, etc. Do you ever have time for personal projects?
Lately, I have three to four projects that I’m juggling but they’re always in different phases of production. A lot of times, I have a couple in pre-production, or one that I’m working on or preparing for, or I’m in the post-phase.
I’m always in these different phases of production and sometimes working on a couple of things simultaneously. It’s just me making my schedule on when I can spend time on each thing, whether it’s time on the computer, out shooting, or in the studio.
It’s just me so I have to be the producer, the receptionist, the studio manager, etc. It can be very overwhelming, but I try to have a positive attitude. I try to do these things to remain happy, but also do a good amount of work. I try to keep the work stuff in check, because I know how easy it is to get into that work zombie mode.
Do you have a favorite shoot that you’ve done that was very memorable for you?
I did a shoot with Canon, and I’ve been a Canon person since the beginning. It was like another career checkbox thing where I was basically hired by the company of the tools that I use.
They had an event, but it was an event based around me, and they built this Jonpaul world in the middle of Venice Beach. I designed this pink skatepark, and we had guys dressed up as teal cowboys. I worked with a costume designer to make the outfits and colored skateboards. They skated back and forth and people could use the Canon cameras to photograph them, but I shot them for an hour at the beginning of the day. There was an art gallery too.
It was definitely one of those “pinch me” moments. My friends came too, and they were all laughing and telling me that it was ridiculous that they made this of me. It was really cool though, and it’s going to be a while until something tops that.
And then diving into the opposite side of the coin - do you have a dream person or company that you’d like to collaborate with?
Anything that I’m a fan of. I’m like a nerd person - not a full nerd, but I have extreme nerd tendencies, like I love Nintendo and coffee. I get really fanboy about stuff and there are certain celebrities that I get excited about. David Letterman would be an amazing person to shoot. He’s the first person at the top of my head, or Bruce Campbell, or anyone who has made any significant artwork that I’m a fan of. I’m a big fan of other artists.
Like you stated earlier, you seemed to have landed in a really cool spot and gained a lot of success in photography. What advice would you give to other freelance photographers that are trying to make it?
I’ve been in the field for a long time and I know that what happens is that people get into ruts where they don’t feel inspired. I’ve learned to always stay curious, not only through my work but with life in general.
Try to keep that childlike brain that’s excited and delighted about things. Don’t stop creating, playing, and figuring things out. It’s whenever you decide to quit is when you’re not going to have a photography career.
To me, a photography career is not just getting to a certain point and staying there. It’s this constant evolution and sometimes a de-evolution when you need to move backwards in order to move forward. It’s hard because you work alone for a lot of the time and it’s a very solitary thing. I’m an introverted person who loves to be social so it’s a weird combination.
Also, make sure to stay humble on top of it all. It’s never good to be like, “my artwork is the shit,” but more like “oh, I love my artwork. It’s cool.”